If the Church invites dialogue about gender ideology and homosexuality, does this signal a possible compromise of Catholic doctrine?
This question lies at the heart of the controversy over the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education’s recent document, “Male and Female He Created Them”: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education. Overall it’s a valuable, courageous, and necessary statement to Catholic educators, but there are some serious concerns which I will briefly summarize. As for the debate that has gained the most attention—about the appropriateness of “dialogue” on gender ideology—the proposal is probably much less a danger than some initially feared.
Activists have decried the Vatican’s insistence on the truth that gender is tied to biological sex, and seeing an opportunity in the invitation to dialogue, they have called on the Vatican to devote more attention to the voices of same-sex attracted and gender dysphoric (transgendered) persons. The outspoken Fr. James Martin, while scandalously lamenting the document’s teaching, holds out some hope that “dialogue” might lead to a future correction.
Likewise, some more faithful Catholics are concerned that a call to dialogue falsely suggests that the moral teaching on this topic is not settled, once and for all.
I sympathize with concerns about the Vatican’s use of terms like “dialogue” and “openness,” which have been abused by enemies of the Church who hope to normalize unrepented sin. But the Congregation for Catholic Education explains clearly that the Church’s position is based on reason, natural law, and revelation and is universally normative. Instead of inviting dissent, it seems to me that this document encourages a healthy process of dialogue involving listening to the needs of others and understanding their conditions as a preparation for reasoned discussion with them in light of the Christian faith.
What Kind of Dialogue?
Dialogue is a broad term and can mean something as basic as discussion and persuasion, or something as complicated as an attempt to discover truth which is imperfectly known through a process of mutual sharing and critique.
This latter dynamic is often the realm of graduate academics or advanced inquiry in science, artistic creation, literary and historical analysis and the like. Dialogue in this context involves listening to the discovery and insight of experts and evaluating that information in light of the requirements of the particular area of inquiry, in an effort to expand humanity’s knowledge of reality.
Some worry that this type of “discovery dialogue” is being recommended by the Congregation as part of an attempt to change established doctrine—or at least a sign of encouragement to those who would like to change doctrine—rather than as a tool to evangelize those outside the Church. They fear that, rather than proposing the truths of salvation, the intent of bringing in this type of discovery dialogue is to change the Church rather than to change the other. Some also fear that this type of transgressive discovery dialogue is on display in the working document being used for the upcoming Amazon synod.
Without minimizing these concerns, my reading of the Congregation for Catholic Education’s document is that it aligns with a more basic type of dialogue, which simply recommends discussion with the other. It is more of a type of “didactic dialogue” than “discovery dialogue.” This style is frequently used by those who already possess a particular truth, in an attempt to share that knowledge with others. Here dialogue is a tool to help others properly order and develop their own thinking.
This is where much time is spent in schools and in catechesis. Instructors of math, science, history, literature, and catechetics—to teach well—need to figure out what their students know and what might be standing in the way of their more perfect knowing. Expert teachers engage in thoughtful dialogue as a means to figure out what is going on inside a student’s thought processes, so as to clear a path to knowledge and truth. Such dialogue also helps build relationships and communicate personal concerns, which also aids in the educational process since humans’ hearts and minds are connected.
This is the type of dialogue that Jesus often uses. As the source of all reality and wisdom, he is not looking for our added insight into truth; he is looking for a way to engage our hearts and minds and seeking to clear the way for us to freely conform them to the truth. When catechists and teachers, in union with the Church, act as Christ’s messenger by sharing his word and saving truth, they too will often engage in this type of dialogue: where what is being developed is the person, not the settled doctrine. Fruitful dialogue in such cases seeks to understand the other by listening, understating their circumstances and discovering what things are working or not working well in their reasoning, and then pointing them toward revealed truth in Christ.
This appears to be the type of dialogue this document practices and recommends. Importantly, the document states that holding fast to gender ideology “precludes dialogue” (5). The section on “listening” does not engage with gender ideology sympathetically, but it simply lays out the claims of gender ideology so as to determine its main points and where there might be any areas of agreement or disagreement. In fact, the document finds agreement on just two uncontroversial points: human dignity requires that everyone be respected, and women have value. Having “listened” to the other and sought common ground, the document then enters into a “reasoning” section, which makes the case against gender theory by referencing nature and natural law. It then moves to a “proposing” section, which is the final step of didactic dialog, where it articulates a Christian anthropology of the person based on Christ, on God’s creation of man as male and female, and on man’s body-soul unity.
Concerns about Language, Experts
Aside from the matter of dialogue, “Male and Female He Made Them” does present some concerns, although these seem contradictory to the overall truth of the document’s teaching.
Perhaps especially in the English text, the syntax can be complicated, and terms and concepts are left vague enough for multiple interpretations, including heterodox interpretations. For example, the document advises that students are to be taught
…to respect every person in their particularity and difference, so that no one should suffer bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination based on their specific characteristics (such as special needs, race, religion, sexual tendencies, etc.). (16)
Because there are simply no circumstances in a school environment which permit bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination, there is no need to link these terrible things to “specific characteristics” of people, especially by adding the controversial category of “sexual tendency” to the currently legally protected categories of race and religion. Even with the qualifier “unjust,” it would seem to contradict the document’s warnings against moral relativism to include “sexual tendencies” among protected characteristics. This appears to lend credence to those who would restrict religious freedom by the use of nondiscrimination laws and lawsuits against faith-based entities, based on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
Another concern is with the use of the terms “respect” and “tolerance,” which in today’s culture are often used synonymously with “approve.” Linking “respect” not to persons but to chosen behaviors can lead to misunderstanding. It needs to be clearly understood that every human being is to be treated with fairness and dignity, even though we can and must hold that their chosen lifestyle or sin is wrong.
This danger of confusion is present elsewhere in the document, such as when it advises,
Every school should therefore make sure it is an environment of trust, calmness and openness, particularly where there are cases that require time and careful discernment. It is essential that the right conditions are created to provide a patient and understanding ear, far removed from any unjust discrimination. (56)
While the document does not say that schools should allow same-sex attracted students to express that attraction at school, or that schools should allow Catholic school boys to dress and act as Catholic school girls if they are so inclined, some might look at such statements in this document and wrongly affirm that to be the case. In fact, such behaviors would be antithetical to a school’s Catholic mission and contrary to the good of its students. The reasons why are beyond the scope of this essay, but they are extensively explored in The Cardinal Newman Society’s Human Sexuality Polices for Catholic Schools.
A further concern is the unwarranted confidence that the Congregation places in new sex education programs designed by experts (50). There is little evidence to trust that they will come to the rescue, especially in light of the Vatican’s own endorsement of problematic sex education materials.
A similar overconfidence seems to be placed in teacher training programs, even those in Catholic universities. In many countries, teacher training programs are highly controlled by the state, completely secular and fully imbued with relativism and gender ideology. Universities are a logical place to look, but practically speaking they are of little current benefit, given the enormity of the ideologies surrounding the entire educational establishment. A critical solution is more at hand: What Catholic teachers need is basic training in the Catholic faith and specific training in Catholic morality to confront this problem.
Standing on Solid Ground
In sum, the Congregation’s document raises some concerns, but faithful Catholic should be grateful for this all-too-rare attempt to make a counter-cultural stance for the Gospel. It is a welcome reinforcement for our beleaguered Catholic schools and encouragement to those Catholic educators who have stood firmly in the solid ground of our Catholic faith.
“Male and Female He Created Them” tackles a culturally explosive topic head-on and explains its weaknesses. It might have been easier to stay silent and let the reining gender ideology rule the day, but such is not the mission of the Church. The document calls out gender ideology’s errant separation of sex and gender and its glorification of feelings and personal choice over the truth of things (8-15). It further identifies that gender ideology has significant and dangerous metaphysical implications, as it is “opposed to faith and reason,” a dangerous turning away from reality and an “aim to annihilate the concept of ‘nature’” (25). It also identifies gender ideology’s cultural effects, including the destruction of the complementarity and reciprocal relationship between men and women (34) and especially its destabilization of the family (1), which has profound negative implications to the whole of society, but especially the poorest and most vulnerable (43).
The document lays out a positive alternative to false gender theory in the form of a proper Christian anthropology, which recognizes that man is both body and soul intimately united (32) and that “sexual difference in relationships is seen as constitutive of personal identity” (26). It further emphasizes that man must respect his given nature, in which the moral law is inscribed, and which he cannot manipulate at will (30).
The document also provides direction and rearticulates basic rights in response to the threat of gender theory. It maintains the child’s natural right to a mother and father. It also restates the natural family’s rights as primary educators (37), especially in the area of human sexuality where “all other participants in the process of education are only able to carry out their responsibilities in the name of the parents, with their consent, and, to a certain degree, with their authorization” (46). Additionally, it states that Catholic educators are “to maintain their own vision of human sexuality, in keeping with the right of families to freely base the education of their children upon an integral anthropology, capable of harmonizing the human person’s physical, psychic, and spiritual identity” (55). It encourages teachers to help students in developing “a critical sense in dealing with the onslaught” of errant sexuality, pornography, and false anthropology (42). It reminds Catholic schools of their mission to be schools “of the human person and of human persons” and that in Christ “the fullness of the truth concerning man is to be found” (39).
May the Congregation’s courage and forthright presentation of Catholic doctrine inspire Catholic educators worldwide to form young people in right reason and right principles—a sort of call to arms for authentic education. This alone is what will effectively stand against destructive gender ideology.
Daniel Guernsey, Ed.D. has worked for over 20 years in Catholic education as a teacher, principal, consultant and professor of education. He is the Director of K-12 Programs at the Cardinal Newman Society.